Local Opinions on Risk and Recovery Management in the Wake of the Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster
Second of a two-part series, this document presents the results of an ethnographic research project entitled Préoccupations, opinions, apprentissages et souhaits quant aux risques et à la gestion des risques de la population de la région de Lac-Mégantic [Concerns, opinions, lessons learned, and wishes respecting risk and risk management among the population of the Lac-Mégantic region]. This qualitative study was commissioned by the Direction de santé publique de l’Estrie after the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster of July 6, 2013. Between July 2014 and February 2015, 57 semi-structured interviews were conducted with evacuated and non-evacuated residents of Lac-Mégantic, residents of other area municipalities, and socioeconomic stakeholders. The study makes no claim to represent the situation as it may stand at the time of reading or in the future. A number of changes have taken place since fieldwork was conducted in Lac-Mégantic, notably at the municipal government level and in the progression of reconstruction work.
The study offers a rare scientific look at the concerns, opinions, lessons learned, and wishes of a Québec population exposed to a major rail disaster. The study highlights how an industrial accident and the contamination of a town centre impact residents’ quality of life and well-being.
With respect to risk management, the main findings made by the interviewees, also called “informants” in the text, are as follows:
- Authorities rapidly took the situation in hand, hence the perception of efficiency by informants. Several key figures were identified and also influenced the positive opinions.
- Informants felt that administrative constraints imposed by municipal and government authorities reduced management efficiency over time.
- The role of authorities in managing risk was a frequent topic of discussion. The multi-partner risk management dynamic was viewed in a positive light. The important role played by ministerial officials was the subject of criticism, especially regarding relations with municipal institutions. Some informants were severely critical of the power of the rail industry.
- Informants had mixed perceptions about how well the municipal government listened to their concerns. Study participants reported that they had been given an opportunity to express themselves, but felt that their remarks had been largely disregarded, especially with respect to important matters like the decision to demolish the buildings in the downtown core. The Réinventer la ville (Reinventing the town) consulting process was frequently cited as an example of this, even though many participants appreciated the initiative.
- Overall, many informants felt that residents didn’t have enough power. Some reported feeling resigned to political and administrative decisions, whereas others were organizing themselves.
- The tension between human and economic considerations was highlighted. On one hand, informants spoke critically about the importance of economic recovery. On the other, many painted financial and human considerations as opposites and said economic concerns tended to take precedence over human ones. In this regard, participants were particularly critical of the municipality and the federal government in office at the time the interviews were conducted.
- Gaps in transparency in municipal and government communications led to a loss of trust among some participants. This feeling affected residents’ understanding of certain decisions related to the demolition of the town centre, financial management of the recovery effort, the construction of commercial condos, and the purchase of contaminated land in the downtown core.
- The most common wishes regarding risk and recovery management were about managing reconstruction and rail safety in a spirit of peace and harmony.
- The results are consistent with the recent social science literature on disasters, especially the literature on oil spills. They also echo a number of guiding principles of risk management employed by Québec public health officials, including transparency, openness, rigour, and caution.
In light of contemporary development in the oil industry, this study provides an opportunity for risk governance actors to learn from the response provided to the community of Lac-Mégantic after the rail disaster.